Germanicus and Agrippina: An Imperial Love Story

Six months into his rule, Roman Emperor Caligula fell severely ill. When he recovered, he abandoned the toga for silk gowns and took up the habit of dressing as a woman. He also declared himself as a living god. Caligula’s illness was widely credited by contemporary historians as a turning point to his madness. In contrast, Caligula’s parents, Germanicus and Agripinna, were the ‘Brad and Angelina’ of Ancient Rome. Their union provided the genetic lynch-pin between the two most powerful dynasties in Rome – the Julian and the Claudian, as well as celebrity, nobility and glamour. They were beloved by the Emperor and the empire alike. From the glowing reports on Germanicus and Agripinna, it was hard to believe that Caligula was their son.

However, it is possible that Caligula’s descent into madness was not as dramatic as it was reported. His childhood was extraordinary even by ancient Roman standards. In the time that he lived in and all Caligula and his parents have had to go through as a family, is it so hard to believe that this may have planted at least some of the seeds of Caligula’s peculiarities?

Germanicus, Public Relations Expert

Germanicus’ name may have faded into obscurity nowadays compared to the more famous romans such as his son Caligula, his uncle Tiberius, even his grandmother Livia. But, at the height of the Roman Empire, Germanicus was universally recognized by the citizens of Rome as one of the greatest warriors the Empire had ever produced.

The stepfather of Germanicus’ father was the Emperor Augustus himself (who, by the time of Germanicus’ birth, was already widely referred to as a living god) and his grandfather on his mother’s side was the legendary Mark Antony. The name Germanicus was given to him when it was awarded to his father posthumously in honor of his victories in Germania.

Head og Germanicus, Musée Saint-Raymond
Head og Germanicus, Musée Saint-Raymond

As a young man, Germanicus was known to be a very intelligent man with a stainless personal record. Augustus’ partiality to Germanicus showed when he then had Tiberius adopt Germanicus to further secure the succession, despite the fact that Tiberius had a son of his own, Nero Claudius Drusus (Drusus the Younger).

As part of Augustus’ plan, in 4 CE Germanicus married Agrippina, grand-daughter of Augustus. Germanicus held subordinate commands on the Danube frontier under Tiberius from 7 to 9 CE. In his military duties, Agrippina was always by his side with their children. Although this was an unusual arrangement, as most Roman matrons and their children remained at home while their husbands went to wars, it greatly endeared Germanicus’ family to the soldiers. When they were in Rome, the children were put on display with both Augustus and Germanicus whenever opportunity allowed, as a testament of Rome’s imperial continuity.

Germanicus’ career also progressed quickly, standing for the quaestorship in 7 CE at the age of 20, four years earlier than the allowed minimum age for the position under the Empire, before proceeding to the consulship in 12 CE.

Bronze bust of Germanicus at the British Museum, By Alun Salt - Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0
Bronze bust of Germanicus at the British Museum, By Alun Salt – Flickr, CC BY-SA 2.0

In 14 CE, the news came of the death of Augustus and Tiberius’ accession. Mutinies broke out on the Danube and German frontiers where Germanicus served as governor. At this point, Germanicus was a very popular leader—more popular than Tiberius. The legionaries in the west offered to swear to Germanicus as their new emperor rather than to Tiberius. Germanicus refused this, but still needed to quell the rebellion and keep the legionaries’ favor quickly due of the threat of enemy attack. His solution was to forge a letter from Tiberius that gave the soldiers all they had demanded. He viewed this as the quickest way to settle the mutiny and increase his own popularity with them.

The plan backfired when Tiberius’ envoys came from Rome. The soldiers quickly realized that the letter was a forgery. They dragged Germanicus out of bed and threatened Agrippina and Caligula who were with him. Germanicus appealed to his men to let him send away his wife and young son. The soldiers, ashamed of themselves, prepared to punish and execute the rebel leaders themselves. Always very conscious of his image, Germanicus did not publicly interfere. This way, he was able to have the ring-leaders punished without incurring any resentment towards himself, thereby keeping his image as the noble hero and kept his hands clean from any unpleasantness. However, behind the scenes, Germanicus ordered his general to gather some trusted men from among the two still hostile legions, and had them kill the unsuspecting leaders of the revolt in their tents.

When Germanicus was recalled to Rome after the end of the campaign, his children all took part in their father’s triumphal parade in 17 CE, once again giving an effective public face to the imperial house. Germanicus was made co-consul in 18 CE, making him one of the two most powerful men in Rome, the other being the Emperor himself.

Germanicus died in Antioch in 19 CE. Ancient sources wrote about marks of poison in Germanicus’ corpse such as bruises and foaming at the mouth. Eulogies compared him with Alexander the Great, who had died at the same age.

Inscription dedicated to Germanicus (after year 18 AD), exhibited in the smaller cloister, entering the Archaeological Museum in Milan, (Italy).  By Giovanni Dall'Orto - Own work, Attribution,
Inscription dedicated to Germanicus (after year 18 AD), exhibited in the smaller cloister, entering the Archaeological Museum in Milan, (Italy).  By Giovanni Dall’Orto – Own work, Attribution,

The Lady and the Emperor

In 21 BC, Augustus rewarded his loyal general Marcus Vipsanius Agrippa with a marriage to his daughter Julia. Agrippa and Julia produced five children, one of whom was Vipsania Agrippina, known as simply Agrippina, or Agrippina the Elder. The marriage of Agrippina and Germanicus proved even more fertile than had that of Julia and Agrippa. Of their nine children, six survived to maturity, including the future emperor Caligula and the future empress Agrippina the Younger. The children added to the popularity of Germanicus, and Augustus as a grandfather, and Agrippina acquired a well-deserved reputation for successful childbearing. 

Bust of Agrippina, Istanbul. By G. Dall'Orto
Bust of Agrippina, Istanbul. By G. Dall’Orto

Following the unrest after the death of Augustus and the ascension of Tiberius, a suggestion was made by some members of Germanicus’ staff for the then pregnant Agrippina to escape and return to Rome. Agrippina scoffed at the idea, reminding them of her duty to remain with her husband. In 15 CE, she rallied discouraged legions returning from a German campaign and prevented the destruction of a temporary bridge across the Rhine. These actions gained her a reputation for prowess and fortitude, and she was widely praised as the ideal Roman matron.  Agrippina had effectively put down a mutiny which the name of the emperor himself had not been sufficient to quell. She gave birth to two daughters in this period.

When Germanicus died, it was said that his dying words to Agrippina was to urge her to “lay aside her intractable temper” to avoid dangerous conflicts in Rome. He asked his circle of friends to present Agrippina and his six children to the Roman people – counting on the love and support of the Roman people to his family to protect his widow and children from the political intrigues of the empire. The mourning which took place at Germanicus’ death was universal, and it was widely suspected that somehow Tiberius had caused his death. Agrippina returned to Italy dramatically bearing her husband’s ashes and received the attention due a hero’s wife.

Agrippina holding the urn of Germanicus, by Angelika Kauffmann (1793)
Agrippina holding the urn of Germanicus, by Angelika Kauffmann (1793)

Despite Germanicus’ warning, Agrippina did become involved in court politics as an advocate for her own sons as heir to the emperor as opposed to Tiberius’ natural son, Drusus the Younger. Germanicus’ supporters now transferred their hopes to his oldest sons, Nero and Drusus, who were in their early teens when their father died. Agrippina encouraged these hopes, to Tiberius’ anger. Agrippina’s strength and steadfastness which served her well in Germanicus’ military camps became read as ambition and arrogance in Rome. 

The conflict between Agrippina and Tiberius grew more serious, and the distrust between them escalated until Agrippina and her oldest son Nero were arrested and exiled to the small islands off the coast of Naples in 29 CE as crowds protested in the streets. Agrippina’s second son, Drusus, was arrested a year later and kept in Rome until he was forced to suicide in 31 CE. Nero committed suicide, and Agrippina and Drusus starved to death in 33 CE. The day Agrippina died was declared a holiday by Tiberius.

The Last Son of Rome’s Heroes

Gaius Caesar Germanicus was born in 12 CE in Antioch. Agrippina accompanied Germanicus to Germany when Gaius was six months old, leaving him in Rome to be cared for in Augustus and Livia’s household. Baby Gaius did not see his parents again for 18 months until he was sent to his parents in 14 CE. There, as a part of his father’s public relations gambit and to the delight of his father’s soldiers, most of whom would have been missing their own children, Gaius was dressed in a little uniform with a small pair of boots, earning him the nickname of “Caligula,” a name that stuck with him for the rest of his life.

Head of the Roman emperor Caligula on a 16th-century bust. Venice, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. 142. By Richard Mortel. CC BY 2.0.
Head of the Roman emperor Caligula on a 16th-century bust. Venice, Museo Archeologico Nazionale, inv. 142. By Richard Mortel. CC BY 2.0.

However, he was not there long before news came of Augustus’ death and a complete upheaval occurred. Caligula had not seen his mother since he was six months old, one would assume that he was only beginning to feel comfortable with her, and suddenly his mother had to leave him for military businesses. The same soldiers who had been so nice to him suddenly became threatening. However, the soldiers did not forget their love for him, because according to historians Suetonius and Tacitus, when Germanicus threatened to send his wife and children away the soldiers begged him to bring his wife and child back and to take whatever action he felt necessary against the mutineers. Germanicus agreed to let Caligula remain, but he insisted on Agrippina leaving as she was heavily pregnant and was nearing confinement. For Caligula, this would be another separation from his mother.

Immediately afterwards, Germanicus had the soldiers punish the ringleaders, followed by a mass public execution—considering the way the Roman camps were set up at the time, there is every possibility that Caligula witnessed this. Caligula would have been about three years old at this time.

In 18 CE, Germanicus became consul again as Tiberius’ colleague. Caligula, with his brothers and sisters, accompanied their parents on their journey to the East. After a short stay at Nicopolis, Germanicus sailed to Athens then Lesbos where Agrippina gave birth to their last child, Julia Livilla. Leaving Agrippina and the newborn child on Lesbos, Germanicus, possibly accompanied by the six-year-old Caligula, combined administrative duties in Asia Minor with some sightseeing. He was accorded honors by the populations wherever he went, presumably with Caligula looking on in admiration.

Roman sardonyx cameo with Julius Caesar and Augustus (left) and Tiberius and Germanicus (right), decorative mount of the 16th century, Cabinet des médailles, Paris. By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany. CC BY-SA 2.0
Roman sardonyx cameo with Julius Caesar and Augustus (left) and Tiberius and Germanicus (right), decorative mount of the 16th century, Cabinet des médailles, Paris. By Carole Raddato from FRANKFURT, Germany. CC BY-SA 2.0

After returning to Antioch with his family in 19 CE, Germanicus fell ill and subsequently died. Caligula and his sisters accompanied his mother in her return to Rome and were greeted by the spectacle of people grieving for his father. He was no doubt being presented with the utmost effect by Agrippina as the only son who was with her, as his two older brothers did not meet the procession until it reached Terracina.

In the years 19 to 31 CE, Caligula lived in turns with his mother, his great-grandmother Livia, and his grandmother Antonia. His mother was fighting for the rights of his two older brothers as well as trying to prove Tiberius’ guilt in the murder of Germanicus, and was therefore rarely home. Supporters of Germanicus frequented her house and Caligula would have been privy to, at least, her hatred towards the emperor and his associates. At the same time, he would have seen the attacks against his mother and her supporters by Tiberius’ supporters. While this battle raged, he was sent to live with his great-grandmother Livia, who was becoming very old.

Agrippina walking with the ashes of Germanicus. By Eugène Atget - Ministère de la Culture (France) - Médiathèque de l'architecture et du patrimoine - diffusion RMN (image), Public Domain
Agrippina walking with the ashes of Germanicus. By Eugène Atget – Ministère de la Culture (France) – Médiathèque de l’architecture et du patrimoine – diffusion RMN (image), Public Domain

After Livia died, and Agrippina, Nero and Drusus were arrested, Antonia persuaded Tiberius to have Gaius on Capreae with him. In 33 CE, Caligula would have been 21 years old when his mother and his brother Drusus died in exile. In their accounts, Tacitus and Suetonius accused Caligula of not showing any sadness, or indeed, any feeling at the deaths of the members of his family. But, he was still in Capreae at the time, living with the very person who ordered his family’s banishments. Apart from this, given the events of his life so far, one would wonder whether he felt any strong ties with his mother and brothers anyway.

Incidentally, the years Caligula spent with Tiberius were Tiberius at his most autocratic. Although Tiberius adopted him, Caligula was given no training in the affairs of government. Whatever negative feelings he might have felt, Caligula took his emotions out on others. He delighted in watching torture and executions, and spent his nights in orgies. He was in the right place, time and with the right person, as Tiberius himself was at the height of his own debauched lifestyle at this time.

Tiberius fell ill and died in 37 CE. Rumors swirled that Caligula had smothered him, but it did not matter. The people were ecstatic over the death of Tiberius, mostly because the empire now fell into the hands of Caligula, whom they believed packed the same heroic qualities as his late father. The 24-year-old Caligula, who had no experience in government, diplomacy or war, was named as the emperor of Rome.

Caligula, the head, covered with a toga, was inserted in a statue, found in Gortyn, Heraklion Archaeological Museum. By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany.  CC BY-SA 2.0
Caligula, the head, covered with a toga, was inserted in a statue, found in Gortyn, Heraklion Archaeological Museum. By Carole Raddato from Frankfurt, Germany. CC BY-SA 2.0

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